The Grammarphobia Blog

When Aussies make the past more present

Q: I am writing from Australia, where police insert an unnecessary “has” when describing incidents. Example: “The perpetrator [has] entered the shop, and [has] removed a number of items from the shelves. He [has] then left without paying, and [has] made off on foot.” Are police here especially trained to talk like this—or is it universal police-speak?

A: Linguists have noticed the same phenomenon. Instead of using the simple past tense (“The perpetrator entered …”), the police in Australia often issue their statements in the present perfect (”The perpetrator has entered …”).

They do this even when a time element denoting the past is thrown in—like “the next morning.” Normally, standard English would not allow “I have eaten the next morning.” The grammatical construction would be “I ate the next morning.”

The police aren’t the only ones in Australia to communicate in this odd way, according to linguists who have observed the usage.

Radio news announcers as well as talk-show hosts and their call-in listeners also use the present perfect where standard English would call for the simple past.

They’re likely to do this when a progression of events is being described, revealing new or unexpected information.

Why do they do it? Apparently to make past events seem more “present,” and to make hot news seem even hotter.

The linguists Marie-Eve A. Ritz of Australia and Dulcie M. Engel of Wales use the term “vivid narrative use” to describe this practice.

In an article published in the Australian journal Linguistics in 2008, they say this device is “intended to locate hearers in a virtual present or to make them virtual observers of a virtual present speech event.”

“As performers are keen to achieve an effect,” the authors say, “they are hence more likely to make use of devices that attract and sustain their listeners’ attention.”

Here’s an example they gathered from a media report issued by a police sergeant in Perth:

“The victim in this case is a 15-year-old Wattleup boy who was on his way to school. … As he reached the steps leading to the shops he has been tapped on his shoulder. As he has turned around a young man has punched him to the face and a wrestle/fight has taken place during which the victim has dropped his wallet. The offender has grabbed the wallet and run off, removing the money and dropping the wallet as he ran.”

Notice how the tenses begin normally, then shift to the present perfect as the events unfold. As the linguists say, the use of the present perfect “enables the speaker to present situations as tightly connected.”

The authors note that newspaper writing often combines the present tense with past adverbs in what’s called the “narrative present.”

The writers illustrate this with a pair of photo captions from Australian newspapers: “Mr. Keating meets Emperor Akihito yesterday” … “President George Bush speaks to workers at an army tank plant in Lima, Ohio, on Thursday.”

But adverbial time elements normally wouldn’t accompany verbs in the past perfect.

In conclusion, the authors suggest that the differences between the “narrative present” and the “narrative present perfect” are becoming blurred in Australian English.

But why Australian English in particular? As the authors say, that question is “a difficult one to answer.”

“Part of the answer,” they say, “may lie in the extensive use of an informal style in Australia, in particular in the media and the radio more specifically, with presenters making use of further devices to attract their listeners’ attention and to express a sense of solidarity with them.”

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